Saturday, January 1, 2011

Britain's Scattered Heritage

I come from a tiny little green island on the very edge of Europe, which due to a series of historical accidents [and actually against the odds] for a large part of recent history became very powerful (creating an "Empire on which the sun never sets") and then reluctantly gave independence to that nation over the other side of the Atlantic that now aspires to that mantle.

In that role Britain was one of the few states that in the past four or five centuries has grabbed an awful lot of "cultural stuff" from other nations by conquest, economic dominance and other mechanisms (and now the US is doing the same). Today many of these victim nations "want our cultural property back please". In response the cultural property grabbing states like Britain refuse and then make up some high-faluting stuff about "cultural cosmopolitanism/ internationalism" which is in some way superior to ill-defined "cultural nationalism" lying behind the request to be treated as an equal. Then came the Declaration of Universal (Encyclopedic) Museums and Cuno. All just different ways of saying "no, you inferior foreigners, shut up and go away and let us continue to enjoy your art and culture in our collections".

All this is very much to the taste of the no-questions-asked dealers and private collectors of portable antiquities, they too want to walk all over the rights of the people of the "source countries" to any of the archaeological (in particular) heritage of the land they inhabit. I have always felt however that including the broader "repatriation" issue in the debate on the current no-questions-asked trade in antiquities (which is the main subject of my blogging) is confusing the issue, and I believe this is done deliberatly by the dealers' lobby. For this reason, I have not dwelt on it much here on this blog, seeing it as a largely separate issue.

In one of the debates with Cuno last year (I think), a speaker asked how we would feel if it was our cultural property that had been taken "by the Chinese", would we still be spouting off about "universal museums" and a nation's manifest destiny to take everybody else's cultural stuff as trophies. This blog is an adaptation of that thought.

As I say Britain owes its former and current position (and survival of its own cultural heritage more or less intact) to a series of historical accidents. Britain came close to a Napoleonic invasion, arguably it would have only needed a few things go against Britain at the same time as a naval commander to woke up with a migrane on the morning of the Battle of Finistere for example and Britain to lose the air battle with Hitler to have had two invasions take place, with consequent serious losses of cultural property (and of course much else).

So in a new blog I activated today (I've been collecting the ideas and stuff for several weeks now) I decided to take a few significant pieces of our cultural property and imagine how in an alternative historical framework, they could have ended up in different places. Not all of the examples are entirely fictional. I had to use a bit of invention, I did not want to make the French, Americans and Nazis the only villans. I tried to make the discussed cases reflect the various types of problems involved, the Parthenon Marbles are (sort of) parallelled, the problem with repatriation of human remains is touched upon. I have not yet written the one on metal detectorists, but that will be going up in the next few days. I should admit that I do not intend maintaining it as a blog to which new material is constantly added, that is just the form I gave it when I set it up, it seemed less complicated than setting up a website.

The blog can be found here:"Britain's Scattered Heritage"

Is there anything else I should have covered?

Portable Antiquities Collecting and Heritage Issues: Thursday, 26 August 2010

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